Year 803, Suifainn, Reign of High Chieftain Conn, Innis Aran
Saoirse stood behind her friend, pinning Brighid’s fire plume of hair into place. Many braids cascaded into woven textured at the crown of her head. What was left underneath cascaded down past her shoulders, skimming her waist. To her right, Brynhildr arranged wildflowers into Brighid’s bouquet. Ciannait, Chieftainness and dear friend of Saoirse and Brynhildr, stood in the background, watching the festivities. In Ciannait’s arms, a small little boy, Vidar of the MacManus, Brynhildr and Hrokr’s son. Meanwhile Aonghus, of Innis Aran and son of Murtagh and Ciannait peered on tip toe out to the sea below.
Brighid wore a yellow dress, embroidered with little sea waves and spirals of protection. She and Carrick had only known each other for two months, after a rather long campaign at sea with Galway’s ships led by Brynhildr and Riagan. They had fallen in love. And with Saoirse on the trip to visit Ciannait, it was clandestine. Here Saoirse stood, ready to celebrate Brighid’s union in love. It was an odd time of year to do it. It was June, near the summer solstice, not the proper time of Bealtaine, several weeks past.
“Why can’t you wait until the next festival? It will be another month to Lughnasadh. Do it then! To have your clan with you. Brighid, this is madness.” Saoirse said.
Saoirse had a grand wedding feast five years, before during the Bealtaine festival. Chieftains from all over had come, including Murtagh and Ciannait. That was the first time she had met the Chieftain from Innis Aran. Ciannait became Saoirse’s closest ally against the O’Connors, in Saoirse’s first years of marriage. Her replacement for the friendship she had lost with Brighid.
Brighid’s wedding was the first time Saoirse had spent a large chunk of time with Brighid since Saoirse had married Riagan, and abandoned the only world she knew. And this was only a week. Saoirse and Brighid grew up together, along with Brighid’s brother, Declan. The three had always planned to become members of Conn’s army. To fight and explore, gain every glory they achieve. To walk in the shadow of the great Cuchulain. They had plans of adventure. But things changed, and Saoirse took a new path. She didn’t have time for Brighid anymore, but Brighid carried on hoping it would go back someday.
At high noon, Brighid, Saoirse, and Ciannait walked to the top of the fortress. With the background of the Atlantic Ocean, Murtagh performed the ritual. He fasted their hands together and offered blessings to the Gods to protect them. He made a Caim, pulling them all into the circle: Carrick, Brighid, Riagan, Ciannait, Saoirse, Hrokr and Brynhildr. Some new faces, friends of Ciannait, that were staying until their goods were traded, and would go follow another horde. They were Northmen, covered in strange tattoos and scars. Traders from Scandinavia, distant clansmen of Hrokr. They were strange and beautiful to Saoirse. She wanted to be like them. They were storied, before they even spoke a word. Under the lantern light of the small wedding feast, fueled by many glasses of poitin, the stories flowed.
“We’ve been fighting for Ragnar Lothbrook. To the east and now to the west, to avenge his father. He has conquered much of Northumbria and now he has his eyes on more. Maybe your island, next . We could set up a new kingdom called Dublin were you call Leinster?” One Scandinavian said with a great roar of a voice. He was covered in tattoos. His hair was reddish blonde. Long on top, shaved on the sides. He wore a bracelet on his wrist and had a long beard.
“And Tara. Our Gods have made a mockery of the English gods. We will put yours to shame as well. Your holy hill could be in service of Odin.” Another Scandinavian laughed. Hrokr stifled a laugh for the sake of his new family. Brynhildr pretended not to hear.
“The island is already dropping to the Christians, so I don’t think you will have to work too hard.” Brynhildr answered, “If you ever settle this island. The MacManus clan is a blend, working for neither Odin nor Danu.” getting the Scandinavians’s goat.
The more the Scandinavians bragged, the less Saoirse cared for Ciannait’s vikinger friends. Especially not how Riagan watched Ciannait with wonder again, sharing stories of her younger adventures with him. Ciannait was the only woman in his eyes tonight.
The feast was beginning to be a bore. There was nothing for her at this table. Brighid was enamoured with Carrick, as she should be on her wedding night, Ciannait was engrossed in talking to Murtagh and the Scandinavians. She looked at her plate and pushed it away. She may not have the winding tattoos of the foreigners, nor the battle scars of the warriors around the table, but she had her form and her wit. She would not drown her sorrows in food. She wanted to beautiful for Riagan. She nervously played with her hair and smoothed her dress. She was good enough right? She felt cold inside, from the little moments she saw between Riagan and Ciannait. A shiver ran through her veins, and she felt a crack travel into her heart. She couldn’t shake it. Riagan was not her Riagan. She began to see it, in that moment, at Murtagh’s table at Innis Aran.
The chill didn’t go away like she hoped. It stayed through many more courses. It stayed while drunk dancing in the great hall with her friends and husband. And stayed, sending chills all over, as she was wrapped up in Riagan that night in their bed. She kissed him and felt nothing but fear. These lips were the lips that spent the night chatting up another woman. The brown eyes that looked back at her were the same that looked intoxicated all evening by the blonde foreign beauty of Ciannait. Saoirse closed her eyes and hoped it would go away. She wanted to be warm again.
The next morning, a late breakfast lay before the table. Groggy eyes and hungover heads hunched over plates of food. There were two more places from the night before. Saoirse rubbed her eyes and let the table come into focus again. Two plates still remained. She heard the ominous cackle that reminded her of home. She turned her head towards the sound. Tearlag’s dusty taupe hair rounded the corner. She was arm in arm with Ciannait, chatting away, like they were old friends. Tearlag had never been that affectionate to her, not once in her entire marriage to Riagan. Saoirse boiled and turned back to her plate. Conn sat down across from her, next to his son.
“Da, what are you doing here?” Riagan asked with annoyance, getting up to greet his mother.
“You know Tearlag, she couldn’t rest until she made sure that you two were capable of establishing an export agreement with Murtagh. So, here we are.” Conn replied. “And now she has found a new friend. What do you think of Innis Aran, Saoirse?”
“I don’t have an impression.” Saoirse groaned. “I didn’t think I’d have to share him this early.” Saoirse tucked into her porridge. “Riagan has found a new friend too. I’m afraid I’m going to be cast off for Chieftainness Ciannait.”
“Be careful, my dear. He is set for greatness and you are believed to be in the way.” Conn said. “I don’t want to see you get hurt, and I’ll deal with him as soon as breakfast is done, but I can’t say the same for her. Tearlag will not be stopped. An unfortunate lesson I learned after we had our children.”
Conn sipped his tea. He was balding quickly. His hair was slowly changing from dark brown to gray. His brawny form was beginning to retreat out of disuse. He led less battles on the field and more battles at home. Many days of hiding away in his library turned his skin pale. Saoirse felt sorry for the man who had extended her such welcome to their home. He was her rock to weather the storm of Tearlag and her dysfunctional sons.
Saoirse looked back to where Tearlag, Ciannait, and Riagan stood discussing something with muted tones. The cackling was at an end and a smug smile now adorned Tearlag’s face. She was plotting. Saoirse should have known that day what heartbreak lay ahead for her and Riagan. Ciannait and Tearlag would bring her foundation to rubble. There would be no steady ground. Tearlag not so delicately nudged Riagan to sit at the other end of the table with Ciannait and the three of them formed a small group that lasted far beyond breakfast. Tearlag kept her claws in them, suggesting a walk to see Ciannait’s boat, just the three of them.
“I have a growing fascination with boats. Galway and Limerick sure are falling behind in our technology.” Tearlag said. “You and Murtagh are ahead of all of us!”
“I thought the MacManus was being run by Hrokr of Jutland, Tearlag. Surely his boats would be better than Ciannait’s?” Saoirse asked.
Tearlag looked at her, “Well, that’s what I intend to find out. You shan’t need to come, you’re of no need to me. You can’t even sail.” Tearlag stormed off, leading Ciannait away with Riagan. Saoirse would never forget the sneer Tearlag wore that day, a darkness pulled around her, the air even colder. Her mouth became a viper, her eyes burned into Saoirse. A new personality broke forth, unhinged from its tether. It was more frightening than being caught in the woods with a snarling wolf. You expected the wild animal to snap but you don’t expect a stately woman to. Saoirse ran from the stone wall entrance and puked on the side of the fort. She realized in that moment that Tearlag was not as she seemed. She would be served better to have a banshee as a mother-in-law. Death would be quick, but this would be a slow, painful process. The life would be sucked out, drop by drop. She puked again. Saoirse followed them. She had to know what was going on. Saoirse followed them down to the boats, hiding behind a line of boulders that had fallen from the cliff face.
“Ciannait, as you can see, my son wants you and I see that you want him too. Now, instead of the cliche affairs I saw my father have, why not make this worth your while? Do you agree?” Tearlag asked Ciannait.
Riagan stood on the dock, while the two women spoke on the boat. He chewed at his fingers with his back to the boat. He looked nervous, unsettled. Saoirse looked away from him. There was too much guilt written on his face, it made her head spin.
“I agree.” Ciannait said. “What will make this different from the affairs of our fathers? I too had an open-hearted father, his fame made him quite irresistible. I guess discovering a new part of the world will do that to men. I’m not really satisfied with my name in a Legend, I want power and influence now.” Ciannait touched the handle of the sword tucked into her belt. “It makes me feel alive. Ruling Innis Aran is just the beginning for me. The Gods told me I will own one of your kingdoms. I am certain I will make it happen, somehow.” She laughed but Tearlag did not.
“I know how you can without your sword.” Tearlag said.
“I am listening.” Ciannait said, “It’s surely too dangerous now with Aonghus.”
“Riagan is not happy in his marriage to Saoirse, she has been a disappointment, a failure. My foolish husband picked her, probably to take her as a mistress later after Riagan got bored. I’m sure she will take it for she is a simple creature. Not of our caliber.” Tearlag laughed. “I am taking control of the situation to save my kingdom. That little skank will not have a piece of Galway or Limerick . I won’t allow it. But you I would accept, with proper channels, of course. I need you to prove your loyalty to me by serving as a mercenary. You will be compensated, of course. You will serve with Riagan and you will make him fall in love with you. You will give him a son before Saoirse can. You will do your best to keep him here, away from Saoirse, and, in return, you will rule my kingdoms. You will have power and influence.” Tearlag said. Ciannait laughed. “You want me to have an affair with your married son? And take your word that you will not screw me over? No. I want gold up front. I also want Hrokr to be put into a place of ruling in Limerick for real, Tearlag. Brynhildr and Hrokr are the true rulers. They will be my insurance. You will also not screw me over or I will reign down hordes of my Icelander friends onto your kingdoms, until they fall, and you have nothing left. Are we clear?” Brynhildr asked, her hand on her sword again. “They personally helped Ivar the Boneless bring Leinster and Tara to rubble. I would surely love to watch Galway’s people dissolve into nothing again. I am not afraid of you nor your destiny from the Gods. You people are my pawns, and my people will come. It is only a matter of time. But, I can make them go easy on you. Do we have a deal?” Ciannait asked, extending her hand to Tearlag.
“Yes, yes we do.” Tearlag matched her hand. Saoirse, from behind her rocks, shook. Her place in Galway was under direct attack and she had to make an heir fast. And fast she did, much to Tearlag’s sneer. Saoirse did get sick all over the rocks. Every relationship was floating and one false move from sinking she believed. She was alone ever since that day. She had no one, and she had nothing. She crumbled. Her fire for life was snuffed. Her purpose, compromised. All in the sneer of Tearlag.
So many days since then, Saoirse had seen Tearlag make that face. Saoirse had watched her pull Riagan from her. It wouldn’t be over until she was dead. Saoirse wanted to do it with her own hands. She wanted to scalp her and nail her pelt to a wall. She wanted to watch that awful sneer leave her body, through the grip of her hands around Tearlag’s throat. What joy there would be when the Chieftainness of destruction breathed her last? Would Saoirse finally be free to be happy?
Saorise, in her most dark moments since the day Tearlag began to wedge her way between Riagan and Saoirse, wanted to end her. She saw it play over and over in her head. She would kill her, and then she would be free. Saoirse would be allowed to exist. She would be validated. The dark moment would pass, and Saoirse would put down the knife.